One of the most common questions we are asked is 'What size hole hay net should I choose'. One of the factors that determine this, is to ask "what hay are you using?"
Below we discuss some of the most common hay types we come across and some suggestions about what hole size is best.
For our comprehensive analysis of ALL parameters you need to take into consideration when choosing what hay net mesh hole size will suit your individual animals, please click here.
Hay Species – What is best for the horse?
Pasture and hay are the main types of forage/fibre that are VERY important to the healthy digestion of all horses, ponies and livestock. We all know that horses in a natural environment would be eating for 16 to 20 hours each day. Sometimes due to time of year, drought, flood or health reasons such as laminitis, adequate pasture is not available and therefore hay is the main source of fibre available. The choice of hay is extremely important and very much dependent on the individual horse’s health, weight, workload and age, to name but a few parameters.
Depending on the individual horse and its workload and requirements, a horse should be eating between 1.5 to 2.5% of its weight in fibre each day. This equates to 7.5 - 12.5kg of roughage (hay and/or pasture) per day for a 500kg horse. An overweight horse is best suited to being fed around 1.5%, whereas a young horse or a broodmare is best suited to around 2.5% of their body weight.
There are MANY different hay types in Australia that horse owners choose to feed their horses. Again, this is very much an individual horse and human decision, and availability will often dictate what you are able to feed your horses and livestock. Droughts and rain are the biggest determining factors of hay and pasture availability.
Because Lucerne is so highly palatable, we recommend 2cm, 3cm, or 4 cm-sized holes depending on the type of horse and its requirements. Lucerne is recommended to not be fed more than 1/3 of the daily hay diet. Therefore, if feeding 3 biscuits of hay, one biscuit of lucerne with 2 biscuits of another hay such as pasture hay is ideal.
Lucerne can be a controversial hay to feed horses. Some swear by it, others have had horses appear to go 'nuts' when on it and others have had issues with scouring. To the right type of horse, fed in the correct amounts in conjunction with other hays such as pasture, it can be a valuable forage source.
Feeding Lucerne alone as the only forage source is not recommended by Equine Nutritionists as the protein generally exceeds what is required as well as the Ca:P and Ca:Mg ratio being unbalanced.
Lucerne has the advantage of being highly palatable and can boost a diet of energy, protein, and calcium if required. It is also good for weight gain and is high in essential amino acids.
Excess protein, however, can be a problem in performance horses in training, especially due to the increase in urinary ammonia for stabled horses thereby possibly resulting in respiratory problems. Other problems with excess protein are that it can contribute to dehydration due to water loss through increased urine product, or excess heat production of the digestive system can contribute to hyperthermia.
Lucerne is certainly not recommended for good doers, and although it may typically be lower in sugar/starch, it can increase the risk of laminitis due to contributing to obesity.
Grass / Pasture Hay
Not all grass or pasture hays are created equal. They differ very much in the species of grasses contained within them. For example, ryegrass and clover hay are typically very high in sugar and starch and not recommended for laminitic prone horses or ponies. It can also contain endophytes.
Grass hays are popular in Australia and can also contain native species which are more typically lower in sugar. The best way to determine sugar/starch levels is to get your hay tested. I personally now use Feed Central in Toowoomba, QLD as this is easier than sending to Equi-analytical Labs in the USA from Australia.
In addition to ryegrass, grasses can include but are not limited to, wild oats, Phalaris, cocksfoot, prairie grass, red grass, and a multitude of native grasses. Rhodes and Teff grass hays will be discussed further on.
There are so many factors that influence the sugar/starch content of hay. These include the time of day cut, how old the plant is (ie; just starting to produce seed head up to having a mature seed head), rain/weather damage, nutritional status of the soil, drought or adequate rain, and many other factors.
Grass hays can be high in energy and protein, but are generally not as high as legumes. In addition, poorly made or more fibrous grass hay is often not as palatable for horses.
For any horses or ponies where the sugar content is very important, it’s advised to get the hay tested before feeding. Physical appearance tells you nothing about the sugar and nutritional level of the hay.
When deciding what hay net size to choose, palatability and sugar content as well as the workload or health status of the horse or pony all come into play.
For low-sugar pasture hay that isn't very palatable for an average weighted horse or pony, you may choose 4cm, maybe even 6cm. For pasture hay that is palatable, not too stalky, is readily being eaten by a horse or pony that is used to slow feeders and/or weight is an issue, then 3cm would probably be a better choice, maybe even 2cm for 'expert level' slow feed hay net experts.
Offering 2 different-sized hole hay nets can be a good way to make sure your horses or ponies have constant access to forage. For example, you may have a Medium 3cm hay net with hay and then a Small 2cm, so that when they run out of the 3cm, they still have something to eat in the 2cm net, but at an even slower rate. Or for a not-so-greedy horse, you may have a Medium 4cm net with a Small or Medium 3cm hay net, which always ensures access to fibre for your horse or pony.
Speaking with Equine Nutritionists, Rhodes Grass seems to be one of the best hays in terms of general mineral balance and sugar levels. This is because it is well-balanced and doesn’t require much diet ‘tweaking’ to ensure you are feeding a balanced diet.
Although it is a C4 sub-tropical pasture species, it is low in oxalates. It can be quite a consistent and reliable hay when you are searching for low sugar/starch hay for laminitic or IR-type horses and ponies as it is generally less than 10% ESC + Starch.
Its digestibility declines as the plant matures, and more than 10-15% seed head results in less nutrient-dense hay, and ADF (Acid Detergent Fibre) content over 45% is too high which means it becomes more of a 'chew food' rather than nutrient-dense hay. This can still be ok if you are just wanting fibre for your horses to eat and are supplying them with a balanced hard feed daily.
Therefore, it is recommended to get tested just so you know both the sugar levels and nutrient levels of the hay.
As Rhodes grass is typically lower in sugar, you may not need to go to small of a hole. 4cm is a good place to start, however if the hay is quite palatable or the horses are quite greedy, then 3cm might be the better option.
Teff is another grass species that is 'typically' known as low in sugar. However, as mentioned it still comes down to the soil nutrition the hay was grown on, the time of day the hay was cut, if the plant was stressed before cutting v's having had a shower of rain on it a few days before cutting, and many other factors.
I know a few years ago in an area a few hours from us there were some laminitis-prone horses that were getting sore feet from Teff off one particular farm. Turns out this hay was cut in the afternoon when the plant was at its highest sugar level. The time of day of cutting has huge implications on the sugar level of plants.
Teff can be low enough in sugar for laminitic or Cushing's horses but don't assume that it is. It needs to be tested so you don't get caught out. Some horses aren't keen on eating it.
Depending on the palatability and sugar levels of the Teff, you may be able to use 3cm or 4cm sized nets, perhaps even 2cm for those really gutzy horses and ponies as it is a fine hay that will easily come through the holes.
Again, testing your hay is the best idea. If the hay has a sugar level of less than 10%, then it really doesn't matter too much if the hole size is a little larger. In winter you want the horses to get adequate fibre, therefore you might use a 4cm net in winter and 3cm net in summer.
Oaten or Cereal Hay
Cereal hay (oats, barley, wheat) can vary a lot in both nutritional profile and sugar levels. It can be stalky and not very palatable, to soft and highly palatable and full of sugar, to everywhere in between. Therefore, when deciding on a hay net size, you need to take these things into consideration. We had an old horse eating oaten hay in a 3cm Large Hay net, alongside her pasture hays, because it is nice and soft and palatable.
Cereal hay is something to watch with horses. It can be very high in sugar. Wheaten hay can be an issue too, particularly if bearded. If cereal hay is made off a drought-stressed crop, it WILL be high in sugar.
Depending on the palatability and sugar levels of the Cereal hay and the condition and health status of the horses that are using it, will help you determine what size hole hay net to use.
3cm and 4cm would be the most popular hay net hole sizes for oaten or cereal hays! Again, the only way to know what your hay is really like is to get it tested!!
Hole sizes - Quick Summary!
Are you wanting to slow the intake of hay a little, a lot, or not at all?
6cm – great for containing hay and therefore saving on wastage by stopping the hay from being scattered around, blown away, laid on, or used as a toilet.
4cm – a great-sized hole to start with as it will offer some slow feeding effect without being overly frustrating.
3cm – great for slowing down gutzy eaters, or horses on really palatable hay.
2cm – only recommended for horses and ponies that have reached expert-level status in eating from a 3cm hay net. Another scenario for using 2cm nets could be under veterinary or nutritionist's advice to help manage medical conditions such as choke.
For more information on sizes available and all of the parameters to consider before purchasing your GutzBusta, please click here.
Take Home Messages
Forage is critically important in maintaining a happy, healthy equine. Natural grass and pasture change so much during the year such as availability, nutritional levels, and sugar levels, therefore hay is very much required for many horse and pony owners to make up for deficiencies of fibre/forage during these times.
So many factors influence how hay turns out in terms of sugar and nutritional levels.
Time of day it is cut (morning means it will be lower in sugar, than if cut in the afternoon/evening).
If the hay gets rained on after cutting then this will reduce the sugar levels by leaching out some of the sugars, but too much rain may damage the hay so much that it has less nutritional benefit. We are fortunate to get around 10 to 15mls of rain most times we cut hay which works wonderfully to reduce sugar levels. The key is to rake the hay at the appropriate times so that it dries and does not get moldy before baling.
Cutting the day after a cloudy day generally means lower sugar hay due to decreased photosynthesis overnight.
Balanced nutrition of the soil that the hay is grown in. If the soil is of poor quality, then this impacts the quality of the hay that will be produced.
If in doubt, enlist an Equine Nutritionist:
They will help you test your hay and balance your horses’ diet and take the guesswork out.
Although this might cost a little to get done, it soon pays off when you aren't buying supplements you don't need and only buying what you do need.